Mugged and Blackmailed

If you’re arrested in the United States, it doesn’t mean you’re necessarily guilty — far from it. Often times, charges are dropped without any further prosecution. Sometimes, not guilty people decide to plead to a minor charge to avoid the risk of a worse result. And of course, if you do go to trial, you may end up acquitted. (Let’s set aside the issue of the wrongfully convicted, but that happens too.)

Regardless, once arrested, you’re going to be treated like a criminal at least in small amounts. For example, chances are you’re going to get a new portrait taken — a mug shot. Unless you can somehow get it expunged or destroyed later, there’s always going to be photographic evidence that you were, even if briefly and wrongfully, accused of a crime. And in many places, mug shots are a matter of public record; if, say, a newspaper or other journalistic outfit wants a copy, they’re entitled to it.

This can be a problem — because it also supports an unseemly cottage industry.

In 2007, an ex-con named Rob Wiggen, in the words of Wired, finished his three-year prison stint for fraud and started “looking for more legitimate opportunities.” Then in his late 20s, Wiggen became a digital entrepreneur of sorts. He realized that the mug shots of those arrested in Florida were available online, hidden on the websites of various police departments throughout the state. The names and photos of the accused weren’t showing up on Google searches, though. And besides, they were scattered across three dozen different various web databases, making it unlikely that anyone would ever find a specific person’s mug shot accidentally. Wiggen decided to fix both of these “problems.”

Wiggen wrote a computer program which searched through the various police department and sheriffs’ offices web sites, automatically downloading mug shots and their corresponding data (e.g. the arrested people’s names, date of arrest, and charges against). He then uploaded this data to his website, (that’s not a link, intentionally), and slapped some Google-powered ads on it. Google’s search engine added Wiggen’s site to its search results and the former convict suddenly was making a little bit off money on the photos of others who had a run-in with the law. Other mug shot-collecting entrepreneurs entered the space as well, and suddenly, dozens of states’ mug shots were appearing in Google searches.

For the accused, that’s a big problem if you’re, say, looking for a job — your potential employers can find out about the time you were arrested for underaged drinking, to use one real-life example.  But there’s a way out — fork over some money. Few if any of the mug shot sites are explicit about it, but you can buy your way off many of them, just not directly. There are services out there (unaffiliated with the mug shot databases, to be fair) such as (again, no link) which, for a few hundred dollars or so, claim to use “proprietary internet services” to nuke the photo from search results. That may be true, but Wired reports in the above-linked article, these services have another weapon at their disposal: a direct deletion tool provided by Wiggens’ site:

Wiggens said he has provided RemoveSlander an URL for an automated takedown script on his site. A PayPal payment of just $9.95 will automatically purge a mug shot from the site. For an expedited removal from Google’s index, which Wiggen’s code performs through Google’s Webmaster tools interface, the fee is $19.90. Wiggen said other removal sites also make use of that same URL, but he declined to name them.

To many, that reeked of blackmail. So the accused struck back, filing lawsuits against these types of websitesasking Google to step in, and pushing legislators to change the law. These methods have been somewhat, but not entirely successful — some states now require that the mug shot databases remove anyone, upon request, provided that the person was not convicted or did not plead guilty; and Google took some limited action to prevent the mug shots from coming up in searches as often as before. But even then, many of these websites — both the mug shot databases and the removal ones — are still online and, maybe, thriving.

Bonus Fact: Microsoft Outlook 2010 shows avatars/photos of people who are part of your email conversations. If a person involved doesn’t have a photo in the system, Outlook uses a silhouette instead. According to Ars Technica, the silhouette is from a picture of Bill Gates taken December 13, 1977. That photo? His mug shot, from a driving violation.

From the ArchivesArrested Over 1,000 Times: An early Now I Know (and therefore very short) about a man with a lot of mug shots.

RelatedMug shot shot glasses. Featuring famous gangsters. A product that’s a pun!